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She Hasn’t Gone Away You Know!

Posted on: December 21st, 2007

EBS chairman Mark Moran and his house-trained hit squad thought they had quelled the rebellion of EBS members. The well-heeled EBS board, who all profess to love mutuality, have been quietly plotting a peaceful AGM in April.
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Wounded by the 2006 outing – an awkward little exercise in democracy – they have been cooking up a concoction. No effort has been spared to prevent another debacle like last year’s bruising bash in the Burlington.

There are two words Mark and his wealthy cronies dread: the two words are ‘Ethna’ and ‘Tinney’.

Members of the EBS will remember that Mark of the Mater Private Hospital bust a gut last year in his struggle to shaft Ethna. Despite all the resources available to him, he barely managed to remove the lone woman, who had represented true independence on the EBS board. Mark and his hit squad silenced the dissident voice by the narrowest of margins.

Ethna has decided to challenge Mark and his cronies for a second time. This time she will not be ambushed. And this year the case for Ethna is even stronger than last. In recent months Mark’s stewardship of the EBS has been a shambles. None more than the bizarre naming of a new chief executive last week.

Throughout 2007 Mark has plotted and schemed to beef up the board with a series of appointments designed to blunt any democratic challenge from independents like Ethna.

Top of Mark’s list of stars for election at the AGM will be Philip Williamson, the British wonderboy flown in from the giant Nationwide Building Society. Following his shock appointment by the board Philip will now be forced to face election by the members – as is mandatory for co-opted directors.

Philip ticks all the right boxes. Ahem. He was boss of the British giant; he has a commitment to mutuality. Blah blah blah. EBS members should look at Philip in a little more detail. Philip left the Nationwide earlier than originally intended. Early departure can raise a few questions.

According to the annual report (conveniently released after the EBS appointed him), Philip was given a massive golden goodbye for “agreeing to early retirement”. So the Nationwide board wanted Philip out. He agreed. And he trousered a small fortune for his early bath.

Well, not exactly a small fortune. Philip walked away with a cheque for stg£3.2m (€4.5m) last year. He will receive a pension of stg£300,000 (€420,000) for his wonderful service to Nationwide members. Philip’s compensation for early departure is made up of all sorts of ingredients, including juicy tit bits from the Medium Term Incentive Plan running right up to 2010, long after his exit.

It is a mystery how Philip earned such large performance rewards in his later years at the Nationwide. The highest profile event in his last year was a €1.36m (£980,000) fine from the UK‘s Financial Services Authority. His Nationwide had lamentably failed to protect customers from the risk of financial crime. Its members paid a huge fine for their executives’ mistake. But the board agreed to reward top dog Philip even more than the fine in his compensation package!

Mutuality can be a rewarding road for some Mutual hot shots, like Philip. Ethna has a fighting chance of toppling Philip.

A second plutocrat in her sights will be Mark’s old pal, director Jim Ruane, another profiteer from the Mater Private Hospital gang. Why a building society needs two directors from a lucrative private medical profit centre is a mystery. But of course the previous EBS chairman, Brian Joyce, coincidentally held the chair at the Mater Private too. Is Jim Ruane being teed up to succeed Mark, to make it a hat-trick for the Mater Private?

Last of Moran’s cabal to seek re-election is Emer Finnan, loyal secretary of the EBS throughout Mark’s toils. Emer is embedded in the EBS corporate culture of feeding the fatcats.

A pity the same fatcats found it so hard to find a new EBS chief executive last year. Following a long trawl, nearly six months after the resignation of Ted McGovern, they dug up poor Fergus Murphy last week. The circumstances surrounding Fergus’s appointment are comical, but typical of the EBS.

In April this year Fergus was appointed chief executive of the former semi-State, ACC Bank. He lasted six months. On November 6 he suddenly upped sticks. A month ago he popped up as the new boss of Shelbourne Developments in the US. Not much staying power for Fergus. His commitment to Shelbourne hardly lasted a month! On Wednesday he suddenly did a second U-turn, waved goodbye to the Shelbourne gig and joined EBS.

Such erratic behaviour sets off all sorts of alarm bells. Fergus scores zero for loyalty. Was Fergus offered a €1m bonanza by a now desperate board? His pay package was not released in the message sent by Mark to the staff, a message written in such haste that poor Mark even mis-spelled Rabbobank (sic)!

So if the appointment of the changeable Fergus is an embarrassment, how has the EBS itself performed this year? Dismally. Its main project imploded. After wasting millions pursuing a joint venture with the UK‘s Building Society Britannia, the British institution jumped ship and dumped the EBS. In an uncanny repeat of the attempt to woo Rabobank in 2004, yet another foreign financial institution shunned Ireland‘s last mutual.

The EBS is achieving pariah status, the Jonahs of Ireland’s beached whales.

Worse news for the members is to be found nearer to home, in their pockets. It is bad enough rubbing the members’ noses in the manure by appointing Jim of the Mater and €4m fatcat Philip and the ultra-mobile Fergus. But how are the members doing themselves? Is mutuality working?

Sadly, the EBS remains one of the least competitive mortgagors in the market. It is simply not at the races with the big players. Figures supplied by the Irish Mortgage Corporation last Thursday are woeful. No EBS mortgage features in the top 20 offerings. Take a typical mortgage for a first- time buyer purchasing a €350,000 house with a loan of €300,000: the EBS is down the field. The cheapest EBS mortgage product appears in 23rd place, behind AIB, ICS, Permanent TSB, Bank of Ireland, First Active, Halifax and Bank of Scotland.

Its flagship variable mortgage rate (of 5.25 per cent) lags in 57th position. Even in the standard variable category, it is beaten by AIB, Halifax, First Active and Bank of Scotland.

On the deposit side its members are being mocked by their masters. The EBS still contemptuously returns just 0.75 per cent to anyone saving in an instant access account. An EBS saver with €1,000 will earn a pitiful €7.50 a year.

Savers are being fleeced against an Irish inflation rate now running at five per cent.Borrowers are paying too much. EBS members have had another lousy year. Yet Mark, Philip, Emer and Jim Ruane have had a wonderful year. They just love mutuality. No one can blame them.

Their antics have prompted another challenge from the plucky Ethna. She needs 20 signatures. Any member who wants to sign her nomination papers before the December 31 deadline should ring her today at 086-6392245.